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Bus Found but Driver Is Still Missing

Times Staff Writer

A tour bus that was stolen while its European passengers visited Universal Studios was found Friday on a street in the mid-Wilshire area after the driver’s mother alerted authorities where to find it.

Every item that had been left aboard the bus, including luggage and several passports, was found. Only the driver, identified as Deborah Ballard, 40, of Inglewood, was missing.

Authorities, however, said that they do not consider her a criminal suspect nor a victim of foul play--at least for the time being.

“We want to talk to her but at this point, we really don’t know what happened,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Detective Rod Shanks. “It’s a strange case.”

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Ballard had worked for LV Tours, which owns the bus, for about four months, according to J. Tom Saunders, a supervisor for the Hawthorne-based company.

He called Ballard, also known as Deborah Bowens, “a dependable young lady” and said he was “baffled” by her disappearance.

Ballard picked up the 23 German and Swiss tourists and their guide on Thursday when they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, fresh from whirlwind visits of Las Vegas and Dallas. The group drove directly to Universal Studios, leaving many of their personal possessions aboard the white and silver MCI-make bus.

Bus Gone After Tour

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By all indications, Ballard planned to await the tourists’ return, but after the tour, they came out to find the bus gone.

Their guide eventually wired Switzerland for $500 in emergency funds, and the tourists checked into the Mayfair Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to spend the night, authorities said.

“They seemed to take it well,” said Mayfair front desk manager Mary Anne Leuchs. “They weren’t really joking about it--but, of course, if they were joking in German, we wouldn’t know it.”

Deputy Eric Smith, a sheriff’s spokesman, said that shortly before 3:30 a.m. Friday, deputies in West Hollywood received a telephone call from the owner of LV Tours, who said he had been contacted by Ballard’s mother, Alberta Ballard. Smith said that Alberta Ballard told the bus company’s owner where to find the bus--at 3rd Street and Western Avenue. She attributed her information to “an anonymous tipster,” but could not say whether the caller was male or female, Smith said.

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When deputies arrived, they found no indication that it had been ransacked or that a scuffle had occurred on board, Smith said. The vehicle was towed to West Hollywood, where deputies dusted it for fingerprints.

By 8 a.m., the touring Europeans had recovered their personal possessions left on the bus and were off to San Francisco, Shanks said. The tourists also plan to visit Miami, New Orleans and New York.

It was not clear how they got to the Los Angeles airport.


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